|Fairy Tales of Manhattan
by Julie Baumgold
In illustrations by H.J. Ford, long maidens with tiny heads and ever-streaming roan hair stand on the floor of the sea in gauzy dresses cinched with jeweled girdles. Sometimes they ride the night skies on wobbly carpets in air filled with released genies and djinns. Princes who look just like them gaze up from the base of a tower where a snake waits to make the primal three. Or at least I remember it so ...
Another window seat looks onto Central Park at tree level out over playgrounds and green lakes and statues I climb—Hans Christian Andersen with a bronze duckling at his feet, Alice in Wonderland with the manic Mad Hatter and enchanted mushrooms. Up a hill is the Mother Goose Playground with Mother herself riding a stone goose.
As any child, I feel myself observed, bewitched, misplaced in the universe; occasionally, it is as if someone has put a curse on me. I am taken out to play in these forests of the park. My courage is tested at school where lessons wait to be learned, like in a fairy tale.
I live in a palace in the city with many rooms and doormen and elevator men as my guards. In the basement the laundress fills huge vats with wet white sheets and brings them up in soft square folds in baskets. In the kitchen, the cook guards the stove, humming spirituals as her cauldrons boil and soufflés rise. In the bedroom with silk walls, the king and queen live happily and quietly except for dinner parties when the house is alive with the party help. The three children never have an evil stepmother and cash and precious stones magically appear on the mother's dresser. Here, wishes are granted, vessels refill, animals rescue, and a fairy grandmother appears with an armload of dresses. Those who set out on a quest, after thwarting perils, are rewarded though happily ever after has an end.
Sometimes, now, as I walk on familiar New York streets, I feel, along with Andrei Codrescu describing New Orleans, "There are more dead than living people here, and the dead are not all that dead."
Though I have borrowed from those I know and knew, no one in any of these stories lives except in the zipcode of fiction.
This is my New York, my own goblet of sweet sweet poison.
|If You Go Down to the Woods Today (Sleeping Beauty)
Entering Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 76th street, past the playground rebuilt by a woman who ran over her own grandchild, on descending the small hill, is a path lined with baby carriages and nannies informally known as nanny row. Once these women parked behind their Silver Crosses were English and Irish and French but now all of them have strollers and are from islands east and west as far as the Philippines.
Among these women sits one, a bit older and much feared for she is known for her obeah powers. She sits at the end of the row a bit apart with her charge, always a girl baby, beautifully dressed, and in the winter covered by fur coverlets. Unlike the other women she wears a uniform and, as they pass her, the women all bow slightly and say "Good morning, Miss Iris." Miss Iris, unlike the others, is never seen on her cell, it's doubtful she has one, and she never makes chitchat or engages in the rich field of park gossip about her employers. Some swear to have heard her talking low, almost like a prayer. She wears big nurse shoes instead of sneakers.
For three weeks one spring she was absent from the park and when she returned she was with a brand new baby.
There was a ripple along the row when Emelia, a new young nanny, appeared suddenly with Miss Iris' former baby, the exquisite Serena, nine months old.
Nobody moved, nobody said anything. A few of the nurses found they had to pair up and make a circuit of the boat lake where they could be seen leaning towards each other in private conversation in their native language.
It was weeks later that one of the women learned that Miss Iris had been fired for bathing baby Serena on the floor of the nursery bathroom in the twenty room apartment where they lived.
In the park for a week or so thereafter, Miss Iris pretended not to know her former charge, walking by her carriage with her head tilted back and her black eyes straight forward. Unlike the other nannies this new one, Emelia, parked her carriage facing outward and many was the passerby who stopped to admire Serena's unusual beauty. Miss Iris refused to look even when the baby made cooing sounds at her and threw her rattle on the ground once when she passed by.
The days grew chilly in the park. The wind blew the leaves onto the paths. The babies were swathed in blankets. They wore snowsuits and wool caps from Bonpoint and adorable mittens manufactured in China but sold in French boutiques. Their older brothers and sisters were taken off to climb the Alice in Wonderland or Hans Christian Anderson statues or to the playground and it was on one such quiet morning that Miss Iris approached Serena's carriage and was seen to mumble a few words to the delighted child.
Serena looked up with her large green eyes already heavily fringed with the lashes that would become part of her later beauty and reached for Miss Iris' plump dark finger and made a sound like "murph…"
"May I give her a biscuit? "Miss Iris asked and displayed the gold teeth of part of her smile. She brushed a strand of hair from Serena's forehead.
Now all the women were looking right to where this exchange was going on. None of them had ever seen old Iris like this before and all of them registered something false.
Stories of her powers had traveled from Montego Bay up through the islands. She was rumored to be a woman who could slide her eyes around a door and see all. It was said that she could cast spells and summon spirits of all sorts, and that in Jamaica once, years ago, a very bad thing had happened. The women from the Philippines knew none of this for there was little mixing. The islands had regrouped themselves along nanny row –islands among the islands, languages apart.
The next day after Miss Iris' approach, Serena had a bit of a sniffle and a small rash on her forehead. One by one the women passed by and each gave Emelia a caution and each gave Serena a pat or a tweak or an idea for the rash. No one thought anything more about it and Emelia treated it with diaper rash cream. When the scab fell off, a small curved scar had formed.
That summer, as usual, the nannies decamped to Southampton and East Hampton and a few were off to Europe.
In the Fall Emelia was back with Serena who now had blond curls to her shoulder and a rosy beach summer glow and was much too active for Nanny Row so they moved to the 76th street playground and the sandbox and the swings and the slides and the benches where sometimes a mother might even appear.
Miss Iris and her new baby did not return to nanny row and in fact were never seen in that part of the park again. Most thought she had exiled herself to the West Side.
Serena grew up, inspiring adoration and considerable jealousy at every stage of her girlhood. Her golden aura, sweet young charm, modesty, fabulous family wealth, long legs, tangle of blond curls that never darkened that much, all seemed to be gifts, as though each of a tribe of wandering fairies had passed by and given her a token, something rarer and more precious than the next.
More beautiful with every year that her parents grew richer, she sat in her first grade classroom at The Hewitt School with her big full moon eyes roaming around, doodling rainbows and flowers on her worksheets, crumpling them and letting them slide to the floor, playing baby games on her phone under the desk, staring out at the trees when she was seated by the window.
Her teacher suggested to the administration that she might benefit by repeating first grade and her parents, after much fussing and a few helpless threats, agreed.
The school observed that Serena's rather charming lisp had not gone away with age and they suggested lessons with Dr. Adele M. It was one of Dr. Adele's requirements that the mothers must sit in on the lessons and do all the coaching at home. She refused to work with any nanny or nurse. So Serena's elegant mother Frances perched her tiny rump on a child's chair as Dr. M went through hundreds of words beginning with ch and sh. They left each session with lists of words to practice at home and Dr. M could always tell when the mother and child had cheated on their practice.
After two years Serena no longer lisped. Her voice was as clear and unsiblant as anyone could imagine.
At home she closed her door on her parents' arguments and made herself a little cave in her closet into which she carried her favorite toys and her Madeline doll. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans was her favorite book. She had memorized it almost immediately and that is where she developed the concept that would take her through her girlhood. She would be the impetuous, fearless, daring girl doing whatever she could get away with, heedless of consequences.
She was now the eldest in her class and supported almost constantly by tutors and coaches to correct any possible defect or lag. Her teeth were straightened by Dr. Boylan whose braces were truly invisible. Her tennis was coached. Her skiing brought to an expert level. She spent many hours after school every day in a townhouse on East 78th street being prepped for all her homework.
Across the street the men working on the double townhouse silently waited for her arrival.
The teacher's desk faced a yard and Serena could not help studying the trees as they went through the seasons. She especially liked the branches when they were sheathed in ice and she would study them and wait for one of them to drip. Soon as it was Spring they dripped and dripped. Her teacher, Joan, gave her cookies and realized that schoolwork was a foreign concept to the child.
Joan had gone to the Lycee and Yale and tried every method that Teacher's College had imparted but still the girl fidgeted and twisted her long legs around the chair and petted Joan's little dog Napoleone as she tried and failed to learn even the most basic grammar and vocabulary of first year French as well as math, history and English composition.
She would tug at her hair which hung in one long swath over her right shoulder. She would look up from her furry blond brows, widen her emerald eyes and put another cookie into her small pouty mouth, crunching slowly.
"Je m'appelle Mademoiselle," crunch, crunch "Serene."
Sirene, indeed thought Joan. She sighed over Serena's lack of progress every evening to her husband who long ago had accepted that beauty is its own excuse.
Somehow Serena got through her girls school with a minimum of Ritalin. There was one bloody fight on the sidewalk outside the Collegiate School over her and a boy at Andover took pills but was found in time.
Vikram Singh, the head of Advantage Plus Testing, whose hourly rate was $850 began to prepare her for her college boards at about the time Mauritzio, the head of Luna Models saw her staring out the window at the 78th street and Lexington Starbucks. He walked by three times and then went inside to see how long her legs were, if they reached the floor which they did.
This was the California girl he had been looking for, this was the surfer girl with the classic vacantness that the camera loved. He slid into a seat in her row and looked at her carefully, feature by feature. Others were looking at her too, men and women. She was eating a brownie.
"Hi mom," she said to an older women who had just rushed in and was extracting the brownie from her hand.
"No!" The small pillowy lips had parted and she was cramming half the brownie in. "Fuck you, Mom."
Maurizio slid behind the two of them and placed his black business card on the counter.
"Your mother is right. We can't use a fat girl, we can't use an average girl but we do love a tall girl with a snotty attitude and a dirty mouth like you. Would you stand up, please.
"Hey," said Frances.
"Hey, what the fuck," said Serena and she stood up.
"5'11,115. A bit heavy," said Mauritzio. "Put down the little cake. Your real life begins now."
"She is not going to model," said Frances. "Other people have asked and we've always said no. She's going to the New School in the Fall. It's time to say 'Ciao', Mauritzio."
Mauritzio was leaning on the counter now, much too close to Serena. He picked up her latte and drank it down. Then he pulled Serena off the stool, tossed her bag, which was not overly burdened with books, to her mother, pulled her out onto the sidewalk and raised his arm to hail a cab. Two taxis, almost colliding, slammed to a stop around a bicyclist who banged the hood.
"She'll be home for dinner," he told Frances who had run out and was just about to yank her back out of the open cab door.
In the taxi he continued to study her face. He swept aside her bangs and found the scar. It was one of those beauty tells; like all great beauties, she had a flaw, the necessary imperfection that made her different.
The defiant Madeline who had lodged herself in Serena long ago loved the whole escapade. Serena had been following the models on Style.com, Fashionista and Vogue.com and she could tell you their names. She felt like she belonged with the Dalmas and Natashas and Saskias rather than typing notes onto her iPad in some overheated classroom downtown. She was destined for print or a Milan runway and it was about time for this to happen.
When she thought of love she thought of the disheartening way her parents behaved and doubted it was possible. And then she would look in the mirror and think that anything was possible.
She was about to do her test shots for Mauritzio when The International Ball loomed. Long ago she had agreed to allow her parents to present her to society at the Ball with all the extravagance they deemed necessary.
Karl Lagerfeld himself was to design her dress and she and Frances flew over to Paris for the fittings. Lagerfeld saw all that Mauritzio had seen, a nascent Claudia Schiffer, only American. The girl was divine.
The directrice had taken away Serena's pain chocolat and café crème and put them on a tray on an unused worktable.
Karl glided in holding Choupette, his much pampered cat who stretched out a declawed paw and licked it slowly as she sniffed the forbidden foods.
Karl reached a fingerless glove for the pain chocolat and it hovered there in a twister of vanity and desire.
"You might be a mannequin, my dear. The dress is good," he said and then he was gone, his black leather glove sweeping the pain chocolat from the tray and feeding a few crumbs to Choupette. Frances had not managed to say a word.
Haynes Porter was twenty nine, long out of Yale law, and long notorious, when he was forced to take his kid half sister Penelope to the International ball. Once, if you had mentioned his name in the corridor of any girls' school, heads would have popped out of every room. Now he lingered on Most Eligible lists only because of his money.
Some of the bad stories about him had been paid off and made to disappear.
His dark blond hair, which he wore swept over his brow in the retro style of the Sixties, had begun to thin and drink had left pouches of random flesh on his lean body. Still he looked magnificent in a dinner jacket sitting at a table of bores with a cigarette in his mouth. No one at the table had dared tell him to put it out, no maitre d' had cared to approach.
Serena looked over and saw the image of an insolent sleepy-eyed devil wreathed in smoke. He had stretched out his legs onto the dance floor and she saw he was wearing patent leather evening pumps like her father wore.
She had her escort dance her closer. He did not look up.
There were a few seats at his table and she sank into one sending her date off to find her a drink.
"Try this," he said and pushed his vodka over to her. It was not a vodka tonic.
He picked up Serena's hand hating her blue nails. He ran his finger over the scar on her forehead. Then he half- whispered these words:
Shy one, shy one,
Shy one of my heart,
She moves in the firelight
She carries in the dishes
And lays them in a row.
To an isle in the water
With her would I go.
She carries in the candles
And lights the curtained room.
Shy in the doorway
And shy in the gloom
And shy as a rabbit,
Helpful and shy.
To an isle in the water
With her I would fly.
"Wow, did you write that? It's beautiful." Normally she would have said "Does that work on everyone?" or something equally snotty so she surprised herself by this response.
"Maybe yes, maybe no" said Haynes and flicked an ash onto the tablecloth.
"It's Yeats," said her date who had just returned." Why don't you fly away, asshole."
There was a scuffle after which Haynes Porter picked up Serena by her long white glove and dragged her off just as Mauritzio had done as his cigarette burned a hole in the Waldorf Astoria pink tablecloth.
By the time Serena had finished a photography course at The New School and one season of the New York shows, she was engaged with a four carat emerald cut ring. Serena's parents and Mauritzio were not happy about this, having heard from different directions that Haynes Porter was no good at all.
He had fought them all to have her, he had persisted through their many attempts to get him to go away. Then there was Serena, ever willful, blind, and fully seduced.
Frances had seen many versions of Haynes over the years from the time they first took Serena to Palm Beach then St Bart's and Aspen. She worried about the fathers of Serena's friends, she worried about the creeps on line, she worried about teachers, male and female, the model hawks who lined the runways. All of them were easy to understand compared to this young man who seemed more in love with the idea of Serena than the real, sometimes not very pleasant, mercurial girl.
The ex FBI agent Serena's father had hired was still uncertain which of the rumors he turned up were true. Haynes was smart, extremely rich and somehow, off.
Frances resigned herself and began to think of the situation as a first marriage. The wedding would be very big because of the Porter family and because of the fashion world which now seemed to own Serena. A lavish rehearsal dinner, bachelor and bachelorettes, a breakfast afterwards, again Lagerfeld for the Chanel couture bridal dress and Hedi Slimane's Saint Laurent for all the other clothes and unavoidable publicity all along for they were all so photogenic.
That was it, they looked good together, right from the same perpetual beach with their boards and their wetsuits hanging half off and the sun always in their hair and their thin arms around each other's waists climbing into a Jeep with the music already going and everyone looking their way. Even in risky old New York that is what came off of them—that whiff of summer and good times ahead.
Assorted snobbish clubs swallowed them up for the pre wedding events, the Porter family shut out the fashion people and kept the couple to themselves and the expensive details were as private as they could be. Frances wore lavender chiffon and a big wedding hat and decided, since the Porters wound up paying for almost everything, that she could live with Haynes as a son in law.
The wedding was in a winter forest which had been recreated inside a ballroom. Trees were wheeled in and draped with extra tendrils and vines nestling little random lights. Big tropical leaves that did not quite belong were sprinkled with fairy dust. The floor was moss, the silver chairs twined with ivy.
All Serena's friends descended on the club downtown for the after party during which Haynes got so drunk that his friends had to lift him into the car with Serena where he vomited over her Saint Laurent white leather dress and high laced boots.
Serena looked over at her pale putrescent new husband and then down at the boots where his sick had oozed through the laces onto her flesh. Some of the young love went out of her then, some of her visions of the life they would have had to be amended. She was not sure as she held his clammy forehead where she, age nineteen, was going.
Every one in her other world, the New York world outside of the limousine, knew. They would go away for their wedding trip to Maui and then they would live in the new apartment on Chrystie Street on the wide planked white cerused oak floors where everything was brand new and they hung over a waiting city. Inside all the furniture was white or whitish and spare and built in to the new walls which hid all except for a few oversized books and one green plant with its little leaves shaped into a ball.
There was of course a blown up shot of Serena leaping in some desert hung in a heavy black wood frame and, when she returned from her trip, she began to look at herself and think of how she had felt that day, how free, albeit fussed over by the vast crouching team behind the camera.
In her bathrooms by each sink the decorator had placed a single giant palm leaf in a glass vase with white pebbles on the bottom and, in the niches, a stack of white towels professionally rolled. Her phone was always ringing with Mauritzio's assistant for the bookings and it seemed that Haynes was never there.
She ate carefully, worked out, and went. She did print and some runway and a lot of Instagram and Twitter where she was appreciated for both her silliness and the fact that she went everywhere, drank lots of champagne and never once took a bad selfie.
The urge to roam the world had come over Haynes. He wanted to see old Havana houses, he wanted to see the pyramids, he had been to India for months at a time and he wanted to return to take pictures there and in Shanghai and Dubai and islands off the coast of Australia and to rescue elephants from poachers. In his house in Aspen he had ten thousand bottles of wines that he had collected, his family's rare books and a garage full of important vintage cars.
"I have to work," Serena said.
"I can't see why," he said and did not have to say the obvious that they did not and never would need the money. Their money, still his because of the pre nup, was limitless as the city, now a silvery color pricked with magenta glowing beneath their windows.
It was then that Serena, thinking back on her Madeline books, began to wonder if Haynes, aside from his interest in elephants, was a bad hat. Had she married the bad hat of the Madeline books? Like Pepito, the son of the Spanish ambassador, Haynes had been a lonely little boy. He had been spoiled and indulged in all his misbehavior. Now he was a young man with half a law degree who felt the need to get on planes and keep moving to take pictures.
Serena liked her city, even the Upper East Side where she had grown up. She liked the fact that when she saw someone who looked like someone well known in New York it always was that person, she liked the perpetual construction on every block and the men who would always turn around for her. Now that she was settled in her big bare home with its tightly rolled towels and full closets she did not want to leave. Mauritzio flatly forbid her leaving.
"We'll get you out of it," Frances said after the tenth phone call full of sobs and gasps. "You've tried your best. You just want different things. Thank God There Are No Children."
"I'm going to kill that selfish shit," said her father who had rehired Mike, the ex FBI man to find out about Haynes' missing evenings. "I'm going to whack him over the head with one of his stupid wines."
There was nothing for Serena to do but leave for the apartment her parents had rented for her on Great Jones Street. She had quite a lot of money from work and her parents would give her anything she needed so she packed up her clothes and makeup, scooped up the plant with leaves shaped into a ball and left.
For the first time, she was really alone and she filled the new place with her friends who were in themselves a kind of decoration. They came, flinging their slim bodies on retro bean bag chairs and then going out to eat and drink at the clubs that always wanted them. Sometimes one of them would be found sitting on a curb at three in the morning, torn and lost and still somehow decorative and Serena would rescue whoever it was and bring them home.
She was sought after but she worked less. Her situation with Haynes, who was surfing in Australia, was in the hands of the lawyers when, one wet night after coating their stomachs with vegan pizzas, they all went out in the usual group to drink and dance.
Serena's friend Raven, who was suddenly a supermodel, wanted to show off her new place but she had lost the key. They all decided to break in through the cellar door which opened right onto a flight of concrete steps. They were like a flock of woozy cranes, these tall thin girls with dizzy heads and long fluttering scarves stumbling around.
Did Serena trip over her own scarf or her platforms which she never bothered to fasten properly, twisting her ankle and hurtling her forward? Did one of them lurch against her at the wrong moment in the dark at the top of the steps? Did someone give her a playful or sinister push? Was it vertigo looking down into the pit? Serena would not ever know.
She lay at the foot of the steps with her cheek smashed on the concrete, her forehead torn open, and, inside all the blood, a traumatic brain injury.
In the dark they were bumping into each other and screaming and the lights from their cell phones lit up their beautiful panicked faces as they all dialed 9-1-1 except for Raven who bent over Serena's body, kneeling in the blood.
They took her to Bellevue where the young trauma consult, only an intern, was briefly in charge before the neurosurgeon appeared.
After the operations, Serena was kept in a drug induced coma for months, close to death in that twilight world that is its own forest. She was stuck in time in between being a girl and woman, stuck in the brambles of tubes, stuck in partial arousal between life and death. She was in thickets of words colliding in her mind as she slept. She was floating and drifting as her bed alternately inflated, turning her left then right. She was perhaps hearing, perhaps not, perhaps desiring to return to retrieve what was lost, perhaps not. Now her room could be filled with the flowers.
Her father was there in the room and Frances moved in with her own bed, reading her magazines and then, because she had been a French major at Bryn Mawr long ago, beginning to read aloud In Search of Lost Time. The trauma consult came by, and, on his day off, after sleeping as many hours as he could, would pick up the book—they were on Within a Budding Grove— and read her a few pages though he guessed she had no true awareness. He would stare at her face when Frances, who was hoarse by then, was not looking.
Mauritzio read too in his own charming accent, losing his way in the long foreign sentences and the archaic constructions of the Moncrieff translation . Still he tried. He produced a pair of reading glasses and he dabbed a few tears from his cheek the first time he entered the room and looked down at her face below the bandage.
Already there was trouble with Haynes who had flown back as soon as he knew. His father told him the way to get into any hospital was to walk right past the desk where they would be checking passes and treating worried people like criminal trespassers, to walk like a preoccupied doctor to the elevator and past the nurses' station to the room. He would enter without knocking for he was still her husband, he had rights. He did not like the way the case was progressing. His heavy lidded eyes had snapped open as hers stayed closed.
After negotiations and because the Porters happened to have an anesthesia department with their name modestly incised on the wall above the swinging doors, Haynes had been allowed to bring in his own doctors and the ethics committee which disputed those on Frances's team. The meetings were in the hall never at bedside for the patient's hearing always returns first. Serena slept on, with Frances in the chair nearby reading volume 5: The Prisoner.
The trauma consult, on a different rotation by then, was way too junior to have any influence in the case. Still he kept coming by, picking up her chart, looking at her vital signs, knowing how things were. She might come back but not the same. She would have trouble retrieving words and walking, trouble remembering stories or lists or concentrating on anything. For a while, she would need help getting dressed. She would not be able to live alone then. She would lose her profession and some of her pretty friends. It was almost as though this lovely young girl had been cursed.
© Julie Baumgold, 2015. All rights reserved.